Life List: Backpack Olympic National Park

Add Olympic National Park to your to-do list.
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Add Olympic National Park to your to-do list.

Some myths are pretty wacky–like the Egyptian one about Atum, the well-endowed deity who took his divine member in hand and, after some "firmament shaking," created the world. (Top that, Dirk Diggler.) But others seem fitting—at least that's what you'll think after trekking 17.5 misty miles to Mt. Olympus, a pristine, glacier-laced peak named for a certain snow-covered, cloud-shrouded mountain throne favored by the gods of Greek legend.

Hiking the Hoh River Trail to the base of Olympus feels dreamy and sacred from the get-go. Around you, cathedrals of giant trees enforce a hush that's broken only by a river frothing milk-white with glacial silt. (Hoh, the Salish Indian word for whitewater, is an apt name for this torrent.) You won't see the horizon much here; sitka spruce and western hemlock, sometimes 23 feet in circumference, shoot 100 yards into the air. But your quads will love you: On day one, you'll gain just a few hundred feet over 9.3 miles from the trailhead to the Olympus Guard Station Campground. Pitch your tent among a cluster of cleared, first-come/first-served sites, each equipped with a cable to keep the bears out of your food. There's freshwater runoff on site, so you won't clog your filter with the silty Hoh.

When it rains–and it will (ONP gets 12 to 14 feet of precip each year, making it one of the rainiest places on earth)–fist-sized spadefoot toads and jet-black banana slugs will visit your tent from unseen hideaways. But the canopy is so dense you can usually keep your raingear packed until it really pours. On day two, you'll hot-foot 8.3 miles to Glacier Meadows, a designated camp at the foot of the Blue Glacier. Take a rest day and scramble one mile to the glacier, currently being monitored by the University of Washington for the ice sheet's response to rising temperatures (it's receded 1,400 feet since 1850). Or, if the summit of Mt. Olympus is your goal, leave Glacier Meadows by 4:00 a.m. for a six-hour ascent through a crevasse field, and then 5th-class rock leading to the summit of the West Peak. Your reward is a skybox view of old-growth forests hemming in the mountain–and perhaps even glimpses of the ocean to the west and Seattle to the east.

Spend the next two days reversing your route, dropping from an alpine zone rife with blazing pink fireweed and pale yellow buttercups to the Hoh rainforest with its dank, hanging mosses, huge trees, and viny labyrinths–terrain that will seem downright mythical to the folks back home.

Guide/Map

Pair Hiking Olympic National Park, by Erik Molvar ($15; Falcon) with the USGS Mount Olympus quad.

Gear/Permits

Ice axe and crampons are necessary for a glacier stroll or summit attempt. Hit the Hoh Visitor Center for trail conditions and permits.

Digs/Eats

Thirty minutes northeast, near the town of Forks, is Three Rivers Resor– with cabins, showers, burgers, and 12 different flavors of milkshakes. (360) 374-5300

Go Guided (and help kids)

Pledge $3,500, and you can hop on a mule-supported climb of Olympus through Summit For Someone (summitforsomeone.com). They'll swag you with $2,700 of gear, a guide, and a trip of a lifetime; your donation funds trips for inner-city youth through Big City Mountaineers (bigcitymountaineers.com).

Buy a Full Wall Map.